2016 was an interesting year to say the least. Never before do I remember experiencing such a gamut of emotion as I read the headlines and watched the media. The political scene brought a mixture of amusement and disgust. At times it was like watching children in a schoolyard brawl. I was horrified by the acts of racial violence, terrorism and reports of child abuse and neglect. 2017 has been ushered in with protests and marches in the streets, evidence of a deeply divided nation that has seemingly lost our way.
It is tempting to look out at the chaos of the world and respond with fear and wringing of hands for the future of our children and grandchildren. But this will serve no purpose. The current cultural landscape has convinced me more that ever that we need to focus our efforts on raising well-nurtured, “gritty” children.
“Well nurtured” and “gritty” used together may seem a little contradictory. But in fact, it is not. I sometimes get push back from dads who think that a “well nurtured” child is a mamby pamby mama’s boy who is scared of his own shadow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well-nurtured children grow up to be strong, “gritty” adults who are confident in who they are and their place in the world. They are aware of an “inner life” and value system that guides their thinking and behavior. Gritty individuals are not easily tossed about by the latest trends and fads. They live with purpose and are committed to making a positive contribution to the world and to the wellbeing of others.
What does it mean to “nurture” a child? It means that we meet their developmental needs at optimum time frames as they grow and mature. In the course of development there are certain experiences and interactions that children need at different “sensitive periods” in order for their body, mind, soul and spirit to grow and mature in healthy ways. The problem is that we live in a culture that is essentially child illiterate and few have a clue as to what is meant by “developmental needs.” In the absence of knowledge we make assumptions and interpret their needs in light of our own.
For example, we need babies who sleep through the night when they are only weeks old so that mom and dad can rest. We need infants and toddlers that can endure 40-50 hours a week in childcare. We need children to adjust to multiple living arrangements to accommodate custody agreements of divorced parents. We buy into the myth of quality over quantity and expect our children to interact with us on our terms and don’t bother us when we are busy. We need children to sit still and bubble in answers to standardized tests in the name of school improvement. We need perfect children to assuage our own self-doubt and reassure us that we are good parents.
Rarely are decisions made regarding the well being of children that are truly informed by developmental needs. Educators and childcare providers can care for and teach children without any formal training in child development. Judges, lawyers and caseworkers make life-changing decisions about the placement of children with little understanding of their attachment needs. Legislators determine educational standards and expectations for children with no understanding of how children learn.
Could it be that we don’t really want to know? To know something about the developmental needs of children means we have a moral obligation to do what is best for them and not cater to our own convenience, personal or political agenda, or do what is easy or most cost effective.
But if we are to raise gritty children we need to know in order to parent with intention and purpose. So stay tuned for coming weeks as we take a look at the fascinating world of child development.
Over the holidays I have had the opportunity to participate in Advent celebrations in churches of different faiths. I am always curious to observe how churches include or exclude children in the life of the church because it says something about how they view the spiritual growth and development of little ones. In one church the pastor explicitly addressed the importance of having children in worship alongside their parents and he encouraged everyone to embrace their wiggles and rustling of paper as a good and positive thing.
It warmed my heart to see the ways in which congregations included and embraced children during the advent season. I witnessed moments of “awe and wonder” as time seemed to stand still and a holy hush came over them. Wiggly bodies suddenly were still as their eyes sparkled and their faces reflected joy and wonder.
The picture you see is of my three-year-old granddaughter observing a Christmas pageant at her church. For two hours she watched in rapt wonder as her ballet teacher danced across the stage under dazzling lights. She heard and saw the Christmas story portrayed through drama, live animals, singing and dancing. She insisted on staying until the very end of the two-hour performance, completely destroying the myth that children have short attention spans. They only have short attention spans when they aren’t really interested. (Isn’t that the way it is with adults too?)
In some of the churches children were the very ones who ushered the adults into that place of transcendence as they played the piano, read scripture, lit candles and participated in candle light services. Sometimes just witnessing their very innocence and vulnerability is a moment of sacred awe.
But these moments aren’t just reserved for the holidays. Children can experience sacred moments of awe and wonder all through the year. Though we can’t manufacture these moments, we can create spaces when we pause from the busyness of life and turn down the noise. We create opportunities to just be still….and know. Yes, notice that I said, “we” pause. This is probably the hardest part. It is about us, the grownups, calming the noise and chaos within ourselves to model and help our children to be quiet and just be.
1. Take a walk on a snowy night and listen to the silence.
2. Read together as a family—even when they are teenagers.
3. Build a fire in a fire pit on a chilly autumn evening and huddle together and just talk.
4. Lay a hula hoop in the grass on a warm day and with a magnifying glass, look for all of the living creatures you can find in that space.
5. Attach a bird feeder to a window in your home or at your church so that children can observe their habits and behavior.
6. Catch fireflies on a hot summer night and put them in a clear container to observe (Let them go when you are done.)
7. Instead of just talking about creation with children at church, let them experience it. Bring in butterfly gardens, ant farms, and root viewers.
8. Plant a garden at your church and let children sit on a blanket to sing and hear stories.
9. Give children opportunities to taste, touch, smell, hear and see stories of the faith. Eat lentil soup when talking about Jacob and Esau; dye fabric with natural sources of dye when talking about Joseph’s coat of many colors. Include lamps and candles, clay pots, bread, stalks of wheat and grapes as you talk about metaphors of the faith.
10. Sing together. Did you know that when people sing together, their heart rate begins to synchronize with one another?
Take time this week and pause….just be….and invite your children to be still…and know.
One of my favorite stories as a kid was Chicken Little. Lately, I have been feeling a lot like Henny Penny, the main character in the story, who declares the sky is falling but her warning falls on deaf ears. Like Henny Penny, I believe the sky is falling with regard to our children. We are living in a culture that is becoming increasingly toxic to healthy growth and development and few seem to notice. Do we not care or do we not know enough about child development that we don’t recognize what is happening?
The world for many children has become “hard.” More and more children are spending significant portions of their time interacting with screens more than they are interacting with people. Their world is filled with flashing lights and color, virtual worlds filled with grotesque images of zombies, monsters and violence. Schools have become drab, windowless spaces where the goal is to get children to sit still, be quiet and bubble in the right answers to tests. There is little opportunity to pursue ideas and questions that are of personal interest or meaning. There is little that sparks imagination and ignites creativity.
Even our churches have succumbed to the “hardness” of our culture. On Sunday mornings families attend places of worship where children are relegated to uninviting spaces that scream indifference and ignorance of children and their development. Some, in their attempt to be “culturally relevant” resort to Hollywood images to supposedly attract young families to programs devoid of content because we have forgotten or don’t understand how to truly connect to their heart and mind.
We have forgotten that children are drawn to “sacred spaces”—places that beckon children to be still, to contemplate…to experience God. It is in these moments that children have the capacity to realize that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The experience of sacred moments leads to awe and wonder; awe and wonder will ultimately lead to praise and worship and reverence for life.
Hollywood spends an enormous amount of time and money doing research to understand how to capture the hearts and minds of children for the sole purpose of making them consumers of their products. We live in a culture that is willing to sell the souls of children for monetary personal gain. If only our churches and schools were as purposeful and intentional as Hollywood.
One of the ways we create scared spaces is to incorporate the natural world into our homes, schools and churches. The images of Hollywood pale in comparison to the joy and wonder of experiencing the world that God created. If you don’t believe it, just watch this.